Speed Reads

A Shropshire lass-kicking

Britain's Conservatives lose seat they've held for nearly 200 years, in evident rebuke of Boris Johnson

A bad December for British Prime Minister Boris Johnson got worse early Friday when his Conservative Party lost a special election for a seat in Parliament the party has held for nearly 200 years. The victor in North Shropshire, a rural district near England's border with Wales, was Helen Morgan of the centrist Liberal Democrats. "Tonight the people of North Shropshire have spoken on behalf of the British people," she said. "They have said loudly and clearly, 'Boris Johnson, the party is over.'"

The by-election was called to replace Owen Paterson, the Conservative member of Parliament who had held the seat since 1997 but resigned last month after breaking rules against paid lobbying in Parliament — despite an effort by Johnson to save him. Paterson won the district by nearly 23,000 votes in the 2019 general election, which delivered Johnson a solid majority in Parliament. In Thursday's by-election, Morgan won by nearly 6,000 votes, thanks to support from Labour voters.

Voters in North Shropshire gave Johnson's government "a kicking," and "we've listened and we've heard that message," Conservative party co-chairman Oliver Dowden told BBC News. He said the loss of the safe Tory seat was due more to Paterson's lobbying scandal and said the government will try to reverse its slide in the polls by focusing on a booster campaign amid surging COVID-19 cases from the Omicron variant. 

In the past week, Johnson has been hit with revelations about his staff holding a Christmas party last year in evident violation of his government's own COVID-19 lockdown rules, then joking about it. About 100 Tory lawmakers then refused to support Johnson's plan to control the Omicron variant's spread, forcing him to rely on Labour votes. He is now facing murmurings about a leadership challenge, and Labour is pulling ahead in several opinion polls. 

"The Tory Party is a ruthless machine for winning elections," Jonathan Powell, a former chief of staff to Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair, told The New York Times. "If that is continuing into an election cycle, the party will get rid of him quickly."